New Jersey's Highlands Act saves millions of acres from development
Depending on whom you ask, the 2004 Highlands Act either saved millions of acres from development 'sprawl,' or killed the state's economic growth.
Thursday, October 27, 2011 - 22:15
SAVED: The Highlands Act spared hundreds of thousands of acres of rural land in North Jersey such as this from development. (Photo: The Eyes of New York/Flickr)
Many of you have heard the term "sprawl." Defined in human geography terms as "an urban area formed by the expansion of a town or city into surrounding countryside," sprawl is actually a foreign concept to many of us who grew up in the shadow of New York City, as the Northeast portion of New Jersey is generally an urban and at least suburban area. However, if you traveled 30 minutes west, past Morristown, you would find that vast swaths of undeveloped land housing farms and forests are quite commonplace.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, amid the real estate boom characterized by the mass building of homes, stores and industrial parks, there were a select few in New Jersey who worried about the damages uncontained sprawl could cause. This worry was the impetus for the "Highlands Act," which to its supporters "has been an environmental panacea that prevented sprawl, protected the quality of the state's drinking water and reduced flood damage."
Signed by then-Governor James McGreevey in August 2004, the act put a halt to the construction of large-scale developments in 52 towns across an 88-town, seven-county area in North Jersey. State Assemblyman John McKeon, still defends the decision, saying that "with an average of 5,000 acres per year being developed in the region, putting a halt to the building in the most sensitive areas seemed like the prudent thing to do."
According to James Hughes, dean of the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, the legislation, surely annoying at the time to many, was actually a blessing in disguise. "It was almost the Wild West. There was cheap, easy credit, houses were selling and people thought values would be going up forever; the housing industry isn't in a recession, it's in a depression; the act stopped some projects that would have been disasters if they had been started," Hughes said. Thus, because of this legislation, newly built shopping malls and industrial parks that would have quickly become vacant and a blight on the environment were never built.
Anyone who has any knowledge of sustainability knows that one of the worst, and also one of the most overlooked, effects of development is increased runoff and flooding. According to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, "every three acres of forest can absorb up to 1 million gallos of water, serving as a natural way of stopping flood waters."
Without a doubt, this law aided the quality of drinking water in the area covered by the law. That said, there are sustainable ways to expand, and perhaps in the future, the state would do well to consider some of them.